Each time I go to my local branch of Godrej’s Nature’s Basket in Delhi’s Defence Colony, I am so impressed by the range of foods available and by how nice the sales people are that I forgive the shop for the sloppy check-out system and for how long it takes to pay for my groceries as clerks struggle with keyboards and stare bemusedly at bar codes.
But they are not the only ones to be bemused. Increasingly I find that as we, in urban India, cope with this harvest of plenty, we are bewildered and confused by the vast array of foods on offer. What do we do with them? What are they meant for, exactly? How will they make dinner more exciting for us? What recipes will work? Will our families like this new fangled stuff? And so on.
There are no easy answers to some of those questions because I suspect that the situation varies from household to household and palate to palate. But speaking for myself, I am delighted that many of the things I have written about over the last decade or so no longer seem exotic and hard to find. You may not have a vast range of brands yet or find luxury ingredients, but you can, nevertheless, buy pretty much everything you would once have had to go abroad to find at your local upmarket grocer’s in much of urban India.
This opens up a range of possibilities. My advice, as always, is to steer clear of the ready-made, frozen or refrigerated meals on offer because they are usually disgusting and to buy fresh ingredients to cook dinner for yourself. You’ll find that it is surprisingly easy to cook foods that were once considered so exotic that you had to go to fancy restaurants to eat them. Some options that have now opened up include:
Thai Food: For years and years, the people of Thailand have perpetrated an elaborate double bluff on the world. Their cuisine is so terrific that it can seem forbidding to the amateur chef. Certainly, if you take the Thai food at top restaurants in Bangkok with its mixture of many rare herbs, hard-to-find fruit and complicated freshly-ground pastes, you would never dare attempt it at home.
But here’s the double bluff: though Thai haute cuisine is immensely complex, most ordinary Thais do not have the time to make the complicated version at home. Much more than Indians, they rely on packaged masalas, frozen food and commercially made sauces. In the right hands, these can lead to delicious meals even if they are not quite haute cuisine quality.
There is still a problem with making many Thai dishes in India: you don’t get the right fresh herbs and many of the vegetables are unknown to your local subziwalla. But thanks to the availability of packaged pastes, you can make many Thai dishes at home in India. The food won’t be perfect but it will reach the standard of your neighbourhood Thai restaurant.
For instance, the proper recipe for Tum Yum soup is complicated and slightly stomach churning (you need to poach prawn brains), but you can make a reasonable version with cubes. Put Tum Yum cubes and a chicken stock cube (nothing in Thai cuisine works without stock) into a pan of boiling water and add fresh ingredients (prawns – frozen will do; onions, herbs and leaves, sliced ginger etc.) and you will end up with a dish that is perfectly acceptable. You will need to adjust the seasoning with nimbu and fish stock (nam pla) to taste but it should be good enough to serve to guests at a dinner party.
Quick Thai curries are also absurdly easy to make. Buy a packet of curry paste, sauté it lightly (an Indian touch – Thais are not that keen on frying masalas), pour in some coconut milk, add meat or fish and cook till it tastes right. When it is ready, adjust the flavours with sugar (an important ingredient of Thai food) and nam pla. If you want a meatier flavour, use massaman curry paste, mutton and parboiled potatoes and then add peanuts at the last stage.
Everything you need is easily available. Thai pastes are now sold at every grocer’s, as are tum yum cubes, nam pla and tetra-packs of coconut milk.
This kind of food is easier to make than Indian food and makes a nice change.
Italian Food: For years and years, whenever I have written about risotto, I have had to add such qualifiers as "I am sure you can get the right rice if you look hard enough." No longer. Now, I am pretty sure that you can buy arborio rice the same way that I do – at your local grocer’s.
Once you get the right ingredients, risotto can be absurdly simple. You sauté the arborio (or a similar kind of rice) in olive oil till it crackles, then you add a glug of white wine (any crap wine will do, even Sula) and stir till the liquid is absorbed. Meanwhile, heat a pot of stock (you can use chicken cubes) and once the wine has disappeared, start adding the stock, ladle by ladle to the rice. The principle is the same as the wine. You add enough stock to cover the rice, stir and wait till it is absorbed. Then you add another ladleful and repeat the process. When the rice tastes done to you, you do the finishing.
In Italy, chefs will add risotto ingredients to the pan with the rice, but you can cheat and sauté sliced mushrooms separately (with herbs or whatever you like) and then add them to the rice when it is cooked. Then, you check the flavour (which will have come from the stock) and start the finishing. You can grate a little Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to add an umami taste and give you a creamier texture and a knob of butter to even out the flavours. Some people add cream. I don’t think you necessarily need to do this but it is an option.
Bring the dish to the table soon after it has been cooked and you will seem like a great chef even though the actual cooking process has been simpler than making khichdi. The trick is in the ingredients: good rice, good quality stock (shop around till you find a brand you like), nice butter (Amul is okay but you get many imported butters now), flavourful cheese and the mushrooms. Everything you need for the dish is available just a few minutes away from your house!
Pasta is slightly more complicated. In the immortal words of Robert Plant, there are two paths you can go by (but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you are on). The Indian version of pasta is a thick curry with bits of maida floating around in it. If this is what you like, it is easy. Buy spaghetti, penne or whatever at your grocers’ and then buy a readymade Bolognaise or tomato or cheese sauce and pour it over the pasta.
In Italy, however, the pasta is the point of the dish – not the sauce. My suggestion is that, whichever approach you follow, splash out on good quality Italian pasta. (A supermarket brand like De Cecco is okay; you don’t have to look for gourmet or artisanal pasta.) Go beyond spaghetti and try one of the many interesting pasta shapes now in the shops. Cook it the usual way, in a pot of salted boiling water.
Then, eschew the thick sauce of old. Buy some interesting vegetables – baby corn, mushrooms, snow peas, peppers etc. – and sauté them in olive oil. When the pasta is ready, add it to the pan in which the vegetables have been cooking along with a few spoonfuls of pesto (easily available everywhere now). If the taste is too herby for you, grate some parmesan over the dish.
As time goes by, you will learn to adjust the flavours. You may sauté your vegetables with lots of garlic. You could add a dash of a hotter flavour (chilli, perhaps?) And eventually, you may even do without the packaged pesto. Whatever you do, you will end up with a classy, fresh-tasting dish that is made with a minimum of effort.
The future: I am already out of space. But as you can see, there has never been a better time to be an enthusiastic home cook. In the circumstances it would be a shame to pass these opportunities up and to order a take-out pizza instead!
It’s time to head for the kitchen.
From HT Brunch, September 11
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